'The Iron Claw' review: Zac Efron gives the performance of his career in gut-wrenching sports drama
Courtesy of A24
What can we do to overcome unthinkable tragedies is the question at the center of writer/director Sean Durkin’s emotionally gripping “The Iron Claw.” It’s a thought that’s been levied in countless movies, especially one’s based on true stories, but I’m not sure anything could prepare you for what befalls the Von Erich family. I won’t reveal the details because I walked into the film having absolutely no idea what the story, besides it revolving around a wrestling family dynasty, entailed and found it was the better approach. For anyone familiar with the unbelievable saga, you might wonder how it could be turned it into a full length movie in a way that’s sincere. The results are nothing short of stunning. Yes, it’s about the insurmountable obstacles life throws at you, but it’s also about the bond of brotherhood, the will to fight another day, the misguided respect of an abusive father, and, most importantly, it’s about unconditional love and the sacrifices we make in order to find peace and happiness.
Set in Texas over the span of the 1970s into the early 1980s, “The Iron Claw” follows the Von Erich family in their quest for fame and glory. At the time, the WWE wasn’t a major sports player and wrestling was niche at best, but that didn’t stop patriarch Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany - in a pitch perfect portrayal) from pushing the envelope, invoking his signature iron claw move on his opponents and wowing fans in the process. His time in the ring was cut short and yielded no world championships, which means his four sons would eventually need to prove their capabilities in the ring, even if it was an avenue they didn’t want to explore. He’s not afraid to call it like it is either and goes as far to rank his children based on preference; though it can “change” based on a variety of factors.
Of his children, Kevin (Zac Efron - giving the performance of a lifetime) has the most to prove considering his brother, and the current “favorite,” Kerry (Jeremy Allen White - terrific) was chosen for the Olympics. Meanwhile, David (Harris Dickinson) isn’t as physically fit as his older brother, but he’s got impeccable emcee skills unlike the youngest of the four, Mike (Stanley Simons - exploding onto the scene) who just wants to play music at college parties.
This bizarre rank and file operation that Fritz instills takes a morbid turn when bad luck or, as the brothers say frequently, the “curse,” starts to plague them. It’s not so much about wrestling and making a name for themselves as its surviving another day. Durkin, to his credit, spends a good chunk of time allowing us into the Von Erich family inner circle, showing glimpses of everything that defines the family’s morals. On the outset, you’d assume they were a happy, prosperous, and uber successful family. They were successful, but the movie asks the blatantly obvious question of: “At what cost?”
Make no mistake about it, “The Iron Claw” is a tough sled. One that requires Efron to shoulder the load (both with his physical and emotional chops) in a delicate performance more than worthy of being in the awards conversation. As Kevin, Efron displays a vast range of torment, resentment, and anger (especially towards his father) as he struggles to believe whether or not the family “curse” can spread to his own children and wife (played by Lily James). The movie is filled with great performances and the camaraderie among the brothers is genuine, which ends up being incredibly devastating once Durkin kicks the heavier, depressing elements into high gear, but it’s Efron’s towering and physically demanding performance that rings the loudest. I quite literally didn’t know he had it in him.
And then there’s the wrestling aspect and those scenes, which hardcore fans will appreciate, showcase how back breaking the sport is while providing an intriguing behind-the-scenes peak of what happens before athletes step into the ring. Sure, most of, if not, all of the proceedings are staged, but even if you’re not a fan of wrestling, “The Iron Claw” gives viewers a deeper appreciation of what it takes to be a professional. Spoiler alert: it’s far from easy.
This is all balanced against a tough narrative that manages to get the point across without being exploitative or indecent. In the wrong hands, the Von Erich family’s story may not have lived up to their impact on professional wrestling, but Durkin’s greatest strength is that he treats these people like genuine humans. One’s that never understood what it meant to give up, and one’s that, through the lens of their tyrannical father, didn’t know how to ask for help.
THE IRON CLAW opens in theaters Friday, December 22nd.